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'Panic Room'

'Panic Room' is a stylish game of cat and mouse

Friday, March 29, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If you're wealthy enough to own an 1879 brownstone on West 94th Street in Manhattan with 4,200 square feet, four floors, six working fireplaces, hardwood floors and an elevator, you're wealthy enough for a panic room.

'Panic Room'

Rating: R for violence and language

Starring: Jodie Foster

Director: David Fincher

WEB SITE: www.spe.sony.com



It's a hideaway tucked behind a wall in the master bedroom. With a thick steel door, concrete walls, separate phone line, ventilation system, bank of surveillance monitors and stash of supplies, it's impenetrable in the event of a break-in.

The previous owner of the home was a rich recluse who had the panic room installed. When the newly divorced Meg Altman (Jodie Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) move into the place, they inherit the secure shelter in the David Fincher thriller "Panic Room."

And during their first night, they find themselves running for cover when three men break in. The intruders are an odd lot: the compassionate Burnham (Forest Whitaker), spoiled and high Junior (Jared Leto with hair in braids) and ruthless, ski-masked Raoul (Dwight Yoakam). They had expected the home to be empty but decide to plunge ahead when they discover the sleeping occupants.

When Meg realizes they're not alone, she rouses her daughter and they make a break for the panic room. But the intruders are after something in the panic room, which sets up an elaborate game of cat and mouse, complete with guns and sledgehammers and a fair amount of blood.

"Panic Room" is stylish from the start, with opening credits in which the names seem to hang by invisible threads against New York skyscrapers. Fincher, best known for "Fight Club," "The Game" and "Seven," gives us cutaway views of the brownstone and its occupants and sends his camera snaking through walls as if it were one of those medicinal capsules that journey into the small intestine.

Foster, who seems to have muscle memory from "Silence of the Lambs," makes a very capable heroine who is driven by a mother's fierce desire to protect her child. And the tomboyish Stewart looks like she could be her daughter, eliminating that potential distraction. They make a winning team, although an actor who appears as Meg's ex-husband (Patrick Bauchau) is an utter mismatch. They seem like strangers who haven't even been introduced.

But as accomplished as Fincher's direction is, I couldn't help but think that one or two of the burglars should have known when the house would be occupied. And writer David Koepp occasionally breaks the tension with humor, when he should be making you move to the edge of your seat or nearly jump out of it.

Interestingly enough, "Panic Room" and "Wait Until Dark" are almost exactly the same length but "Panic" seems to drag a bit, perhaps because it's set almost entirely within the townhouse. There's no "Wait Until Dark" moment where the audience collectively gasps. And in the world of thrillers, gasping is good.

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